As our vehicle draws near the black gate, there seems to be little life in the spacious compound. As if to acknowledge our presence, two big dogs bark loudly when we hoot.
“Mbugua! Mbugua !” a woman’s voice echoes from inside the house. A second hoot and a middle-aged man in red slippers, cream trousers and a white vest hurriedly comes to open for us.
“Karibu!” he says as he warmly ushers us inside.
Once inside, we are invited to the main house but we do not get to the sitting room. Instead, we are led to a smaller room adjacent to the main door where we meet an elderly bespectacled woman reading a Bible, her crutches resting against the wall.
She is wearing black trousers and a maroon sweater with a gold chain around her neck. She struggles to stand up and when her attempts fail, she extends her hand for a handshake. Hapa ndio nyumbani. Tunakaa hapa bila makelele, she says. (This is our home. We live here in peace.)
There are two other houses in the compound, each with its own gate. Her daughter Gladwell lives in one while another daughter, Jane occupies the other.
We are in the posh Karen suburb at the home of veteran women’s rights activist Wambui Otieno and her husband of five years, Peter Mbugua. It is Mbugua who opened the gate for us.
As we settle down for a chat, it is immediately apparent that Wambui at home is not very different from the abrasive woman we usually see in public. “I do not get rough unnecessarily. I just cannot take nonsense from anybody, “ she says, then adds, “I am a descendant of a Maasai Laibon and can be very domineering. Remember, I was also a Mau Mau freedom fighter.”
Wambui’s marriage to Mbugua, an electrician, at the Attorney General’s office on July 18, 2003 sparked a wave of condemnation from moralists and church leaders.
Members of the public expressed disgust and questioned why “a grandmother had cheated a young man into a marriage”. She was 67 then, while Mbugua was 28.
Not one to lie low when she feels her rights are being trampled on, Wambui daringly faced the cameras and wondered what the fuss was all about.
“Men in their 80s marry women in their 30s or younger and nobody raises a finger. So what is wrong with Wambui getting herself a young man to marry?” she had posed.
Wambui’s children, through one of the daughters, said their mother’s actions were ridiculous while Mbugua’s family was in utter shock.
When Mbugua’s mother died of high blood pressure a few days after the marriage, it was rumoured that she had died from the shock of learning that her son had married a woman who was even older than her. Mbugua, of course, denied this.
Five years down the line, the couple says they are happy and that people did not care to understand the circumstances under which they fell in love.
“I noticed that Wambui was sick and suffering a lot when I was fixing a roof in her house. After talking to her many times, I realised we needed each other in life,” Mbugua says quietly.
During the interview, which takes place in the house whose roof he was repairing when Cupid’s arrow struck him, Mbugua reveals that it was him who proposed to Wambui and not the other way round as many people think, “Why can’t you marry me so that I can help you around? I love your company very much,” he had proposed to Wambui.
Quietly listening and nodding as her husband narrates the story, Wambui reinforces how love flowed between them. “I was shocked at Mbugua’s suggestion. I asked myself what was wrong with him and he repeated that he meant exactly what he had said,” Both break into a hearty laughter at this recollection.
With most of her nine children abroad, Wambui says it was unfortunate that some of the family members left behind could not accord her the company she desperately needed.
“I was sick and alone in the house most of the time. As Mbugua worked on the roof, he would occasionally chat with me and keep me company. He would even offer to cook and wash for me. I was very grateful and slowly grew to like him very much,” she says.
Mbugua who has been sitting across from her gradually moves closer, kisses her and says their meeting and becoming friends was God’s plan.
“It took courage to tell Wambui that I love her in her condition. Remember she was also my boss,” he chuckles as Wambui explains that she was in very bad health then.
After their controversial wedding their residences in Ngong and Karen were deserted. “Nobody wanted to be associated with us. Our only reprieve was that we were content to be together.
We didn’t need other people in our life. Especially meddlers,” says Mbugua.
Wambui confides that so far, she is the one who has benefited from the relationship more than perhaps she has been able to offer.
“Mbugua has known only sickness in me. He found me sick, and I think I have always been in and out of hospital since then,” she says of her long illness.
Wambui has had several operations on her legs following violence meted out on her during her active agitation for multi-partyism in 1992.
She was one of the most vocal activists for pluralism. She vividly remembers the day, “I was in Kajiado North when several armed morans attacked me in public. I was beaten senseless at the behest of a local politician. I was almost killed. I have never walked properly since then.’’
She also suffers from a heart ailment that has seen her seek medical attention both locally and abroad. Since getting married, Mbugua has been accompanying her to hospital, both in Nairobi and outside the country.
Mbugua denies that his marriage to Wambui is what shocked his mother to death. He says his mother had suffered from asthma and high blood pressure since 1989. Wambui had even visited her in hospital in Naivasha.
Wambui says they were close and that is why she had to attend her funeral in Gilgil despite reservations from some quarters.
As both slowly open up, Mbugua is continuously called out of the room by their two female workers to ensure things are in order. When tea is ready, he is the one who serves all of us.
Wambui pre-empts our curiosity on how the couple manages their kitchen, “ You see, Mbugua does most of the things since I am weak and unable to walk around easily. He is able to run around and help me. I do not know what kind of life I would be living without him, “ she says.
Mbugua, the second born in a family of five, says he has learnt a lot from Wambui’s life experiences and as he puts it, he lives several years ahead of his peers. “She has had a tumultuous past and in all her experiences, there is something to learn,” he explains.
Though their home is not frequented by visitors, both say they now relate well with their in-laws on both sides most of whom had disowned them. Wambui brought in her mother Wairimu Waiyaki who is 110 years old and Mbugua confirms they are very good friends with his mother-in-law”.
He also admits that he is in good terms with Wambui’s daughters with whom they share a compound. “We get along well now,” he says before Wambui puts in, “We decided it was best to let everyone have their own space. It would make all of us happy.”
The couple also decided to adopt Mbugua’s younger sister whose college education they sponsor. They have made several trips to Mbugua’s Gilgil home to visit his relatives.”
We then ask him about his future and whether or not he misses having children of his own, seeing as Wambui can no longer conceive. “I do not believe every marriage must have a biological child.
What matters is happiness,” he says pointing out that people get into marriage for different reasons and his is companionship which Wambui more than covers.
He confides that Wambui has asked him several times whether they should adopt children but he has refused.
“I was willing to adopt a child or children for him, if not for myself, but he refused,” Wambui says as Mbugua nods in agreement.
He says the issue of children does not pre-occupy his mind. “You can have children and be unhappy. I think it is what drives someone into a marriage that counts in the end. He says the aspect of children is an African mindset.
“We do all things that a married couple does. We are husband and wife!” he says of their intimacy.
Could it be that their marriage was based on money? Mbugua candidly rubbishes the perception that he was interested in Wambui’s money rather than her heart.
“Money is not everything. I think we are struggling financially like any other family,” he says.
Mbugua adds that people have commercialised love so much that when one marries a richer spouse, they think you are in it for the money. Wambui echoes his sentiments and says, “ I am not a rich woman. I just do my businesses like any other Nairobian.”
The couple says their secluded house in the leafy neighbourhood gives them ample space and time to be together away from prying eyes. Wambui explains that she officially changed her name to Virginia Wambui Otieno-Mbugua on official documents.
“Our marriage is getting better every day and we hope it shall remain so until we die.